Occult Japan/The Shrines of Ise

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MY first meeting with the gods, upon the top of Ontaké, had been strangely unexpected; my last sign from them was destined to be no less so. It took place in an utterly dissimilar yet even more improbable place—the Shrines of Ise.

If, when buds first stir with dreams of blossom amid the forbidding April of our New England year, a man could quietly be spirited away from doubt, delay, and disappointment to a certain province of what is still old Japan, he would find himself in what he would take for fairyland. Over the whole countryside and far up its background of hills glow cloud-like masses of pink-white bloom, while upon all the country roads carnival crowds of men, women, and children journey gayly along, chanting as they go, beneath the canopy of blossom. It is the great Shintō pilgrimage to the Shrines of Ise that he is gazing on, made every spring by three hundred thousand folk at the time when the cherries blow.

Up the winding street of the town of Yamada, the house-eaves on either hand one long line of fluttering pilgrim flags, the gay throng wends its rollicking way, and, crossing a curved parapeted bridge, enters a strangely neat park in the centre of a little valley shut in by thickly wooded slopes. At the farther end of the open an odd sort of skeleton arch makes portal to a carefully kept primeval forest. Through this ghost of a gateway the pilgrims pass by a broad gravelly path into a natural nave of cryptomeria, the huge trunks straight as columns and so tall that distance itself seems to taper them to where their tops touch in arch far overhead. Down aisles of half light on the sides show here and there the shapes of plain unpainted buildings, with roofs feetdeep in thatch, and curiously curved projecting rafters; while under the great still trees the path winds solemnly on through a second portal, and then a third, to the foot of a flight of broad stone steps, up which it ascends to a gateway in the centre of one side of a plain wooden palisade. The gateway's doors stand open, but a white curtain, hanging from the lintel in their stead, hides all view beyond.

In front of the curtain lies a mat sprinkled with pennies. Before it each pilgrim pauses, lays aside his staff, takes off his travel robes, and tossing his mite to lie there beside its fellows, claps his hands, and bows his head in prayer. Then, his adoration done, he slowly turns, takes up again his robe and staff, and goes the way he came. For this is the goal to his long pilgrimage.

That curtain marks his bourne. Beyond the veil none but the Mikado and the special priests may ever go. Yet every now and then a gracious breeze gently wafts the curtain a little to one side, and for an instant gives the faithful glimpse of a pebbly court, a second gateway, and, screened by pale within pale of palisades, more plain wooden buildings with strangely raftered roofs, reputed counterparts of the primeval dwellings of the race. And this is all that man may ever see of the great Shrines of Ise, chief Mecca of the Shintō faith.

If with the mind's eye the pilgrim ppenetrate no farther than his feet may pass, he may well say with the disappointed tourist whom Chamberlain quotes in the guidebook, in warning to such as would visit these shrines: "There is nothing to see; and they won't let you see it."


Indeed, materially, there is little within save the eight petaled mirror, known by tradition to be there, emblem of the Great Goddess of the Sun.

But there is something there not yet down in the guide-book; not even fully appreciated by the priests themselves. For revelation comes only to those who stand ready to perceive it. It chanced to me in this wise.

Never having made the pilgrimage to these famous shrines, I was minded, after my intimacy with deity, to do so; and, accordingly, under the kind auspices of the high-priest of the Shinshiu sect, was properly accredited to the priests.

The Shrines, technically so called, consist of two congeries of temples inclosed by elaborate series of palisades and bosomed in grand old parks. One is known as the Gekū or Outer Temple; the other as the Naikū or Inner Temple; in ordinary parlance, the Gekūsan and Naikūsan.

An immemorial tradition requires that all the more sacred buildings shall be torn down and exactly rebuilt again once every twenty years. For this purpose each is provided with an alternate site which, similar to and by the side of the one occupied at the moment, awaits, vacant, its turn to be used. There are three such sites at each shrine; one belonging to the main temple and two to smaller temples a short way off through the woods.

The two main temples are dedicate, that at the Naikū to Ama-terasu-o-mi-kami, the Sun-Goddess, and that at the Gekū to Toyo-ake-bime-no-kami, the goddess of food. Formerly the Gekū was dedicate, as Satow, who made a study of non-esoteric Shintō, tells us, to Kuni-toko-tachi-no-mikoto; both the former and the present incumbent being deities connected with the earth. With these chief gods are associated several subordinate divinities. At the Naikūsan these are: Ta-jikara-o-no-kami, the strong-hand-great-god, he who pulled the Sun-Goddess out of the cave whither she had retired displeased; and a divine ancestress of the Imperial house. At the Gekūsan they are Ninigi-no-mikoto, grandson to the Sun-Goddess and ancestor of the Mikado, and two deities who accompanied him when he descended from heaven to rule over the earth, that is, Japan.

Of the lesser temples nothing is said in the guide-book, because next to nothing was known about them. Even the custodians themselves are not aware of all they guard, though they know sufficient to have put any one who had had knowledge of Shintō's esoteric side upon the discovery. But this side, as we have seen, was not suspected.

Now, it happened in the course of my visit that, under the guidance of the priests, we came through the wood upon one of the two smaller temples, and I asked them what it was called. Ara-mi-tama-no-miya, they answered, the Temple of the Rough-August-Soul. Having some acquaintance with the ways of the gods, I began to suspect, only to have my suspicions verified. The Rough-August-Soul turned out to be the rough spirit of the Sun-goddess,—not her usual spirit, they explained, but her spirit when she possesses people. Once, they said, she had possessed a daughter of the Imperial house, many centuries ago, upon this very spot. Here, then, was a strange temple, indeed; a temple dedicated to a possessory spirit; possibly something without a counterpart on earth, save for another like it at the Gekūsan, which I found in the course of the same day.

To the Ise priests all this was but a half-understood tradition. For their sect is esoteric no longer. They know nothing personally of the practice of possession. All the greater their unwitting witness to the fact; and to the still more important fact which this one proves. For it proves that in early days the possession cult was common to all Shintō, and not as now the heirloom only of certain sects.

So completely was possession once an integral part of the Shintō faith, that it erected these temples to the possessory spirits. Nothing could well testify more deeply to belief in their existence, and nothing seem to bring them home more closely to their devotees than this fashioning of an earthly pavilion for their temporary sojourn. Among all the strange details of this god-possession cult, this, perhaps, is the strangest—these temples to possessing spirits.